Julian Cope’s Album of the Month
AOTM #16, September 2001ce
Released 1974 on A&M
"How impossible it is to deny the personal influence of individual great men on the history of the world."
SIGMUND FREUD, Moses & Monotheism.
A Kelt in a Krautrock-style
On July 6th 1978, I found a copy of Magma’s then four-year-old LP Köntarkösz in a junky second-hand shop on the corner of Belmont Road, Liverpool. My friends Paul Simpson and Smelly Elly green-eyed it greedily as I paid over the £1.30, whilst the singer in our ‘band’, a prude called Ian McCulloch, legged out of the shop as quick as you like, saying he’d always suspected I was a ‘fucking jazz rock fan!"
But I myself had had a difficult relationship with Magma since 1972, way back when my Mahavishnu Orchestra-loving mate Herb Leake had bought their insane black gatefold-sleeved debut double-LP and tried to convince me that it wasn’t just Blood Sweat & Tears on an astral plane. Sure it was, I’d argued relentlessly. The singer’s David Clayton-Thomas and they’re on bloody Philips. How un-rock can ya get?
But I secretly held Herb Leake in high esteem for forking out such big dosh for a such a big Euro-double. And though he often admitted to me that the record wasn’t nearly as far out as Faust or Amon Duul 2, we both got a big kick out of this strange super-gloss gatefold packaging with its ultra-annoying/intriguing end-flaps, which you wanted to cut off because they so easily ripped, yet couldn’t because they held inordinate amounts of information.
And however much I called them Blood, Sweat & Tears, in the early ‘70s only Magma would have dared appear (all eight of them) in fitted black flared one-piece jumpsuits and matching occult medallions; three of them saluting the sun, whilst the other five just stared you out, as though thinking: "Yeah? Whatchyew gonna do about it?"
Yup, even back then Magma weren’t no ordinary brassy jazz-based octet. Whereas the impressionism of Faust and the German bands intrigued you with the sheer lack of information, Magma assaulted you with wave upon wave of MEANING. And what meaning! Whilst the bottom right-hand corner of their album waylaid ya with the mysterious words "Univeria Zekt", the names of the tracks were something-else-again (as we 15-year-old proto-heads loved to say). "Nau Ektila", "Stoah", "Muh" and "Thaud Zaia" were hardly French, though not German either. And how did you even attempt to pronounce "Schxyss"? Hey, I’m gonna be hanging with these guys when I grow big enough balls.
As all the copious sleevenotes were in French, it took all our powers of decoding to discover that the mysterious Attaturko-Rumanian grunting of the Clayton-Thomasian lead singer was actually in an invented language called Kobaian, which had been especially made up for Magma by their unbelievably talented and mysterious drummer Christian Vander. Shit, it was all run by the bloody drummer! We all ran around using words like ‘pretentious’ for a coupla months. Well, not words LIKE ‘pretentious’ - we actually just said ‘pretentious’ and let that do us. It was a time when ‘pretentious’ could even be used positively - a bit like ‘paranoid’, a word which I’m absolutely sure Black Sabbath themselves never really understood. Every stupid get in the school was ‘paranoid’ at some point, just as every no-mark doing metalwork or technical drawing yearned to be a temporary poet in order to be called ‘pretentious’.
But, in my Tamworthian neck-of-the-woods, nothing more was heard of Magma for a year or so. Apparently, they had released another LP called 1001 Degrees Centigrade, but no-one got beyond ogling its imported single sleeve in Birmingham Virgin Records, except Herb Leake’s reggae mate Puddle, who claimed that it sounded a lot like the first one, as though he’d have a clue. Anyway, what with the single sleeve, it was hardly worth the bother, or so we all comforted ourselves.
But then something truly insane happened. In February 1973, Magma signed to A&M Records and released an album of true genius. A classic. A record so weird and catchy-at-the-same-time that you could sing it straight-faced and piss off all the soul boys at school to such an extent that they wanted to disarticulate you right there and then. And it was on A&M - the fucking Carpenters label run by Herb Alpert the trumpeter! It’s 1973 and the world has gone insane. Fucking hell, it was weird enough seeing the late copies of Faust’s first LP, no longer the clear vinyl copies which had howled ‘statement’, but black vinyl ones with a standard red Polydor label. Train spotter-y great-coated 15-year-olds such as we were needed solid cultural contexts by which to live. There were traditions to uphold. Slade was red label Polydor not Faust! And A&M was certainly never gonna be Magma.
Except that it very definitely was. Magma’s new album appeared in such a high grade black and gold gatefold that we all felt empowered by this strangely magical act. Magma seemed to have made it, and the record was a new totem to keep on the outside of your weighty underarm LP collection to be conspicuously paraded as you struggled great-coated and unshaven around Tamworth every Saturday afternoon.
And what was the name of this mighty new release? I’ll tell ya, kiddies. It was Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh. Catchy huh? And what was it about? Well, y’know - mechanical destructive commandos and everything that they do. Bloody obvious I woulda thought.
And it turned out that this third album - Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh - was actually part 3 of an unfolding 9LP series known as Theusz Hamtaahk. In Christian Vander’s utopian mind, rock’n’roll was now at a cultural place in the collective mind of humanity where it could possibly be used to help us take giant leaps forward via a few forward-thinking motherfuckers such as he - people with a true tale to tell.
And so Theusz Hamtaahk was Vander’s vehicle for healing the world. Those first two releases, in which the singer Klaus Blasquiz had appeared to be gargling endless portentous phlegm, now made some kind of sense. Those two albums, Magma and 1001 Degrees Centigrade, had been telling the tale of future humans leaving polluted Mother Earth, travelling to their new home on planet Kobaia, returning as evangelists to the Earth, then being imprisoned as dangerous neo-aliens, before being released by Earth’s authorities, who had been informed by Kobaian command that Earth would be disintegrated should they refuse. Cool.
So why was Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh such unfettered genius?
The real reason that Mekanik Destruktiw Komandoh was so good was that it appeared utterly complete and fully-formed to most people. It had the backing of a big record company and, like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus, it had no apparent provenance. If you listened to just Mekanik Destrukiw Kommandoh, it had no influences to grab hold of, no background of any kind, just a bunch of humanoids with thee weirdest names who all hung out together, and spoke their own language. A bit like Dexy’s during their Buddhist Boxers Phase.
Three fundamental changes in Magma’s line-up had sent their sound into hyperspace. First-of-all, their new producer was Gorgio Gomelsky; the swinging London impresario who had been former manager of the Yardbirds and producer of the very psychedelic early Soft Machine. Secondly, gone was the first bass player and gone with him was the jazz - replaced by the scariest and greatest shaved-bald middle-European Ur-Human of all-time. And with the greatest name-of-all-time, too: Jannik Top.
Jannik Top! I’m shaking in me booties just thinking ‘bout him. Jannik Top was a Gene Simmons for people with their own IQ. He played the bass like a Tyrannosaurus Rex skinning a Stegosaurus. He was at least eight feet tall and had claws instead of hands. His bass sound made the night fall early, and kept the moon from rising at all. He didn’t have amplifiers, he just plugged straight into the National Grid and drained the neighbourhood. Upon the ogre-ish arrival of Jannik Top, the early brass section of two saxes and trumpet had left bloodied, sweating and teary - exit three cool-schoolers pursued by a bear.
The other change was the arrival of five Valkyries - a spectacular and oracular choir of women with wonder-fuel Teutono-Frankish names: Muriel Streisfeld, Evelyne Razymovski, Michele Saulnier, Doris Reinhardt and, last but not least, her Just-as-Highness Stella Vander, in her role as (to give her full Kobaian appellation) Organik Kommandeuhr. The first two records had featured poor Klaus Blasquiz on his lonesome vocal jacksee howling up a lupine storm like the Alaskan shaman Igjugurjuk with the white authorities hot on his trail - a Michael Ryan figure picking off innocent Hungerford bystanders and garnering zero compassion from the listener. BUT, the magical effect of having five Tungerman Death Goddesses singing along with him suddenly made Klaus into a combination of Superman, Spiderman, Ultraman AND all 16 of his brothers simultaneously!!!
Whereas, on the first two LPs, lonely Klaus was often an irksome intrusion (often mixed down lower than the brass), on Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, the whole vocal system became a visionary call-and-answer Divine Dialogue of epic proportions. Imagine this piece of libretto screamed out in Kobaian and tell me it’s not genius:
"I have seen the Angel of Light and he smiled at me. He smiled at me, he smiled at me, the Angel of Light."
And the others surprised, question him:
"The Angel of Light smiled at you?"
And he answers with growing conviction:
"He smiled at me, the Angel of Light."
And the others again ask him:
"He smiled at you, the Angel of Light?"
And he answers:
"He smiled at me, he smiled at me."
And so it goes on."
If teenage mates of mine came to Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh cold and loved it, I never blew it for them by telling them that the band had made two jazz-based semi-achievements beforehand. I could even have shown them the first two expensive imports in Virgin and they’d never have guessed - without hearing the music the sleeves looked great and, in the early ‘70s, imports were a no-no to listen to on Virgin headphones unless you were a real grown-up with plenny o’dough. And so the mystery continued…1
By June 1974, Magma had changed all over again and the low-key opera known as Köntarkösz was released. Emotionally, it’s probably best described as Amon Duul 2’s Renate Knaup and Lothar Meid meets the reformed Van Der Graaf Generator on an unvisitable and otherworldly plateau.
"Köntarkösz Part One" opens with furious beat-the-kit-into-submission and telegraph wire bass lines over droning hanging one-chord organ, before Klaus Blasquiz leads the ensemble into a punctuated angular descending riff, kinda like the Doors "America". This mutates into a slow slow portentous Do-Re-Mi of pianos and mob-handed bass, as waspish fuzz organ irritates the choir, buzzing around their collective asses, getting permanently shooed elsewhere. Klaus hisses and cajoles the music, as though he’s trying to cop off with the many heads of Medusa simultaneously, but he’s fighting a losing battle and he’s in danger of them all sussing his two-facedness any minute. Bass oozes from every aural orifice, as the fuzz organ becomes untethered and pushes forwards overly-loud and brazen. Star Trekian females ooh and aah soothingly, but we’re in that same netherland which Van Der Graaf Generator found themselves throughout Godbluff, and no-one feels soothed at all. According to the sleevenotes, we’re now entering the tomb of Emehnteht-Re and only the rhythm section and bass piano dare play, until… aaaaah! Horrible horrible zapping synthesized loud organ ker-monsters your senses out of the right-hand speaker, picked up by the female voices and rhythm which continues to rise and fight the fuzz organ. This then subsides and lets the ensemble continue their way into the ancient tomb. Gentle oriental pianos cascade over brooding distorted Yamaha organ, until the whole track slowly fades.
Then we’re off into the storm of "Ork Alarm", Jannik Top’s ever-ascending cello-driven Blasquiz-ian proto-human mantra. Stereo clavinets echo across the speakers as pumping, driving cellos and waspish Yoko-Ono-like female vocals shiver and shake, inspiring a strangled lead guitar to wring out a hoodoo of notes. No drums. No drums at all. A Christian Vander album and there’s no drums! So rhythmic, so charged… and all without drums! Until the final moments,that is, when the intense paranoia has become just too much and the super stereo FX of crunching Iron Man electro-footsteps come raging up some Milky Way pathway of gravel stars and bring the whole claustrophobic thang to a conclusion of sweet relief.
In total contrast, "Köntarkösz Part Two" is a huge and epic mantra, a heathen movie score for an unfilmed religious epic. It’s the closest Magma ever get to approaching that unchanging Krautrock-ian spiralling that Can and Popol Vuh loved so much, building slowly and gently around just three notes, getting progressively louder and louder and more and more furious, until the whole track finishes with the low rasping tongues of Buddist Monk-type chanting.
Kontakosz concludes with the delicate beauty of "Coltrane Sundia", a short eulogy to the dead John Coltrane. This multiple piano and guitar piece would be at home on Popol Vuh’s Einjager und Seibenjager, hanging in a kind of suspended animation as rippling waterfalls of piano notes tumble out over a gorge of rumbling bass notes. Perhaps these are the last notes of the perfect Magma ensemble, or perhaps I’m being a romantic and claiming something which could never have been quite so simple.
It may be that Jannik Top just tried to take over. It may be that Christian Vander decided that Theusz Hamtaahk was no longer achievable. It may be that A&M came to their senses and heard Joan Armatrading. But, whatever it was, Köntarkösz and Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh were destined to remain the only A&M releases ever made by Magma. The detective work is all there waiting to be done by some journalist with a good ear for an occult tale. If you’ve read my book Repossessed, then you’ll know the weirdness of Christian Vander’s Spanish castle magic battle with big Jannik, and how my/their tour manager Martin Cole was reduced to driving from one hilltop to another in an attempt to make both of them see some sense.
Beyond the Valley of Jannik Top
The albums after Köntarkösz do have some insanely great moments, but as time moves on they get increasingly few and far between. Two particular albums, though, must be appraised for their hidden genius. On 1976’s extremely patchy Udu Wudu, Christian Vander even attempted to trump the death of his mighty ensemble by letting Jannik Top entirely lose on the berserker magic of the side-long epic "De Futura". But a Magma in which Jannik held sway was a Magma in which Klaus Blasquiz was returned to his Igjugurjuk/Michael Ryan role. And I do believe even he himself recognised this, the vocal credit on Udu Wudu’s "Zombies" merely reading "Klaus Blasquiz - growl". For me, Udu Wudu fails not because Magma has become a kind of augmented power trio - that’s fine, and Blasquiz, Top and Vander makes an almighty machine - but because it’s really a return to jazz rock. Clothe it any Teutonic or Utopian way you wish and I still can’t stand the stuff.
Far better was the more ensemble-based Attahk, which saw Jannik Top totally ousted. Yet the opening track and long main themes again generally suffered from the same bugger-digger jazz bass lines and brittle percussive onslaught that I can’t abide. However, the real ‘songs’ - the piano-based "Spiritual", "Rinde", "Nono" and "Dondai" - inhabited a kind of magical and impossibly beautiful Afro-Teutonic space that makes you desperate for an entire album with this sense of loss. Imagine Norman Whitfield at his Undisputed Truth-period experimental best putting out a German-only release on R.U. Kaiser’s Pilz label, and you glimpse the moments that these later Magma tracks still generated. Or maybe Tim Buckley’s "Get on Top"/"Sweet Surrender" vocal gyrations over one of the longer tracks from the Cosmic Couriers’ Tarot. On "Nono", Klaus Blasquiz gets more tearful than Clarence Carter’ on his soul-weepy "Patches". On "Dondai", reunited at last with his New Soul Valkyries, Klaus becomes the greatest and most abandoned operatic soul diva of all time - Sylvester meets Klaus Nomi meets Alan Vega meets Don’t Stand Me Down-period Kevin Rowlands on a railway platform waving goodbye to all hope, all possibilities, all family, all relationships - a squirming, writhing apostate soul brother stomping at the Pillar of Irminsul, desperately willing the newly-converted King Charlemagne to "Spare that tree!"2
But music of this yearning and intensity never came about from a good sensible strategy meeting - it was clearly born in the euphoric high heavens of the central European plain and dragged its migratory self by the knuckles sacrificing itself to itself at every monolith and significant tree, in the true shamanic tradition. The closest that Christian Vander and Jannik Top ever got to a compromise was in not killing each other.
But, then, probably the ultimate reason I hate the Romans so much is because of their pragmatism - as every Roman animal sacrifice doubled as a barbecue, was it even a sacrifice at all? Surely it meant no more than Bill Nelson’s guitar sacrifices during his Bebop Deluxe days, in which he would play a Gibson all evening then substitute that Gibson for a cheap Hondo copy, before ceremoniously setting it afire. Like the Romans before him, Bill made it look great but it didn’t have to hurt his pocket. Was it, then, really any more of a sacrifice than the wishing well is nowadays - in which we throw in 10 pence to make a wish whilst patting the tenner lodged firmly in our back pocket?
Probably not. But for Christian Vander and Jannik Top this was a true soul sacrifice. And when Jannik Top awoke one Spanish morning to discover that his former partner/boss had caused him to rip open his own chest during the night, whatever despair he then lived through must have eventually been overtaken (perhaps much much later) by the realisation that, together in temporary unity, a bass player and a drummer had not only glimpsed that Kobaian Utopia which they had projected into the heavens - but, like Igjugurjuk himself, they had sustained long enough to visit that imagined planet and its Utopian culture and bring us all back a piece.
Buy and listen to Köntarkösz and Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, then go to an oldies record shop and check out the sleeves of the other LPs. You don’t need ALL these records, but you sure as hell gotta grab the two classics. Then the genius of Christian Vander will slowly become subsumed into your consciousness, and you’ll want to own the others just because of what he symbolises. And then, little by little, bit by bit…
- If you need to hear some of Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh, check out W.S.Y.M.’s Thighpaulsandra programmes. One of them features the album’s opening track, "Hortz Fur Dehn Stekehn West".
- Like all visionaries and genuinely forward-thinking motherfuckers, as time moved on, Christian Vander remained as true to the trail as ever. Speaking to Ed Vulliamy in the London Evening Standard; 16th January 1988, Vander was still claiming that Magma’s music was there to be used to confront strong and violent emotions and to dissolve them through "a new consciousness in which we no longer have to take time to land from our moments of aggression, and we understand exactly the place where we are and what things are around us. We are telling always the same story, of the same douleur [pain/distress] and the same souffrance [suffering] in order to achieve the same goal."